Christmas Past in Thompson

What was Christmas like in Thompson years ago and what traditions were followed here? Thompson was an agricultural village with not a great deal of money to spend on luxuries so Christmas would have been a simple affair.

Our first written information is from the school log books, which date from 1874, although the school was closed again in September 1875 due to lack of a headmistress, and did not reopen until January 1876. In that year they had a very short school holiday; the school closed on December 22nd and opened again on December 28th. Unsurprisingly, there were only a few pupils present!

The first mention of any school events is practice for a Christmas concert in preparation for a party in 1881. In 1882 they had a service, possibly in the church, and before they broke up each child received an orange and a Christmas card. The children who attended the church Sunday School were also given a present. The giving of a card and an orange became a tradition and were usually donated by the curate, Rev Smyth Thorpe. In 1885 he also paid for all 69 pupils to attend an entertainment held at the school. He continued with the gifts each Christmas until 1906. We think of school closure for epidemics as something new and rare but it was a much more frequent, though localised, event in the past.

In 1886 the school closed early for Christmas due to sickness in the village and there is no mention of any events. It was common for the school to close for epidemics of diseases which we now see as mild or which are prevented by vaccination, but would then have been lifethreatening. Measles, Scarlet Fever, Whooping Cough and more. Even as recently as the 1940s, the Christmas period often seems to be when there are a lot of children off sick and the holidays extended. On more than one occasion this was for most of December so perhaps Christmas was often not much fun for many families as nostalgia leads us to believe. In 1892 they had the double treat of a Magic Lantern show followed a week later by a concert. Otherwise the end of term seems to have been a period of prize-givings but no special events.

From the mid-1920s an At Home became a regular event attended by the school managers and mothers of the children. The pupils performed recitations, songs and little plays. The first mention of a Christmas Fair is in 1944. The children also gave a short display of dancing and singing. The funds raised went towards a Christmas Party and the Fair or Market became a regular feature, with a party at the end of term. Presents began to be a more regular feature both at the parties and brought in by local residents on the last days of term, and we can see the wealth of people improving. The heads often commented on the weather, mainly because it could prevent children from walking to school, and it is noticeable how often there was snow before Christmas. Moving forward to more recent times, the Midnight Service at our church was begun by the then Rector, Paul Alton, about 40 years ago. There were no other Christmas services held in the group then so the church was packed to standing room only. The joke was that once the pub closed for the evening, everyone headed to the church. Numbers decreased once the Christmas morning services were held in neighbouring churches but the Midnight Service remained a popular traditional feature of a Thompson Christmas. Often, extra chairs had to be brought out. Sadly, along with other church attendance, the congregation has reduced in more recent years but it has remained a key part of our village Christmas.

Carol singing was a long tradition in Thompson, interrupted only by the war years of WW2 until its demise in recent years. It isn’t known when it began but possibly over 80 years ago. Mrs Kerridge of Red Brick Farm was one of those who used to organise it. The village was divided into three areas so that singing took place over three nights. A good crowd would turn out but, if they were unable to join in, villagers would ask which night was to be their part of the village so that they could be sure to be at home and have some pennies ready. It was something the village looked forward to. In the early 1950s the collection went towards a new village hall fund but later a different children’s charity was chosen each year.

The first time Bronwen Tyler took part was in 1983 in the run up to her first Christmas in Thompson. “My mother was staying with us and saw it in the Waylander. We arrived at the village hall to be told we needed a car for the outlying properties. We caught up with them at the church, but getting four children, mother and ourselves in and out of the car soon saw us left behind again. We were told the next stop was Butters Hall. We had only been here a few weeks so we didn’t know it well and not in the dark! We arrived to find not a soul about and no sound of singing. We ended up in the green lane part of the road and were about to give up and go home when the rescue party in the shape of Mike Forster and his Landrover arrived. They forgot to mention going to Top Farm first. We sang our carols and were warmed up at College Farm by Lavender and her famous hot punch (not alcoholic because the heating had burned off the alcohol – well that’s what she claimed) and hot sausage rolls in front of her roaring fire.”

A few years before this incident the weather had been poor so Mike Forster used a tractor and trailer as transport to save cars getting stuck. He tried to back it out of Top Farm and almost tipped everyone into the ditch in the dark. For many years the group was led by Betty with her beautiful singing voice. It is a sad feature of modern times that less and less people came out to sing and the efforts of those who did were unappreciated by some. It became common to see lights switched off and doors unanswered as the group approached.

After so many years of never once failing to meet, in rain, wind, snow and ice, the few had to accept defeat and carol singing ceased. It had begun a small revival in the last two years when we began the idea of lighting village trees and singing at each one.

Then 2020, Covid and all the distancing problems surfaced. So, this year, although there will be trees lit, there will be no carols. For a few years Santa did his rounds on the back of a truck. Alan Blake of the stonemason’s in Watton, carved out two reindeer to decorate the truck and dressed up as Father Christmas. Parents bought a gift and gave it to Santa’s helpers in advance. On Christmas morning Santa was driven round the village personally delivering the presents. The service extended to Griston and Caston before ‘the rules’ put a stop to riding in the back of an open truck. Village events were many.

There was an old folks Christmas party in the old village hall every year. When the 3 in 1 Club for old folk was formed between Thompson, Caston and Griston the people of Thompson got together and cooked the members a Christmas dinner which was served in the village hall. Crackers, party hats, games and gifts were a feature of course as well as a sing song. The children were also catered for. Two parties were held each the village hall put on by the committee and volunteers. One was for the smaller ones with games and a tea. The older children had a slightly more sophisticated version and began to include a disco. A decline in the numbers of children living in the village saw an end to these.

Christmas Bingo began in the 1950s as a fundraiser for the village hall and was enormously popular for many years. The prizes were all donated so you could receive anything from a bar od chocolate or a box of eggs to a large chicken and a final cash prize. Participants took it seriously, arriving with marker pens and buying whole books of tickets. Once over I have never seen a hall empty so fast!

Sometimes, looking back can seem a bit of a gloomy exercise as we realise all the events we have lost as a community. However, times change, we move on and new traditions begin. It has been a real pleasure to have the children who come along to ice cream Thursdays enjoy making Christmas decorations in the new hall and then decorate the tree. They have so enjoyed it and we look forward to returning to that in the years to come. The tree lighting is another new venture which was beginning to take off as other people lit their trees on the same evening and more people were joining in with the walk round the village.

While it was not physically possible to walk to each one and sing during the evening, especially in the rain, it was great to know it was happening around us. The trees at the Church, Community Hall, Well Corner, and the crossroads will still be lit thanks to the PCC, the committees of the Community Hall and Millennium Green and to the Parish Council.

There is still time to add your tree to make Thompson sparkle this Christmas. Last year, we had the idea of adding in a Christmas film following the refreshments in the Hall, and saw a good audience enjoying a really nostalgic evening with It’s A Wonderful Life. We hope we can soon plan such events once more. We look forward to the community being able to take part again.

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